Saturday, February 17, 2007

Seicho Matsumoto's trains of thought

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) may be one of the more subtle political crime writers ever. His narrative technique is so absorbing that it took this essay to remind me of political dimensions to his work I had forgotten about. The piece also sheds lights on political dimensions that may be unfamiliar to readers who know Matsumoto only for his crime fiction.

I knew Matsumoto from his novels Points and Lines and Inspector Imanishi Investigates, the stories collected in The Voice, and the movie Zero Focus, based on a Matsumoto novel. I learned from these that Matsumoto wrote somber, swiftly paced crime stories notable for sundered lovers, apparent suicides, and, most noticeably, an unusual emphasis on trains. Protagonists travel the country by train. Bodies are found under railway cars, solutions depend on railroad timetables, and clues turn up in dining cars.

I learned from the essay cited above that Matsumoto, "obsessed with conspiracies," was "a radical" and "a keen left-wing observer of his society who knew where the levers of power were located."

Trains, as it turns out, had something to do with all this: According to the essay's author, Wolcott Wheeler, Matsumoto published a nonfiction exposé of a string of violent events in post-World War II occupied Japan and traced these events to the occupation authorities. Wheeler says these events included, among others, "the mysterious and violent death of Japan Railways chief Sadamori Shimoyama in June 1949, run over by a train; the runaway train caused by sabotage in Mitaka in July 1949; and the notorious Matsukawa train wreck of August 1949, an act of sabotage that was blamed on the Japanese Communist Party (resulting in the banning of the party), for which the Communists were completely exonerated by the Tokyo Supreme Court in 1961."

Further, Wheeler writes that Japan "wholly depends on trains for public transportation; trains are to Japan what automobiles are to the United States. Just as cars represent personal freedom to Americans, railways represent to the Japanese a shared, communal existence based on mutual cooperation."

So, in the work of this excellent Japanese mystery writer, a train may be more than just a train.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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